STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 07/24/2008

FEATURE | Heart of Discovery: An Overture

On the eve of the Ken Olsen Science Center's grand opening September 27, Provost Mark Sargent challenges the Gordon community--"whether we map genomes or merely struggle to decipher spreadsheets"--to think about the alliance of faith, science and democracy in our culture.

Heart of Discovery: An Overture
by Mark Sargent

The rift valley at Þingvellir is a dark gash in the moors of Iceland. Some 40 feet deep, the chasm stretches as wide as two miles in some places, but its most famous corridor is the narrow ravine through which the Oxará, or Axe River, flows out of a massive lake, an ancient spring trapped by hardened magma. A few years ago our family spent a summer morning walking through the narrow passage. We leapt between fallen rocks and hunted up the small waterfalls tumbling over the steep, charcoal-colored basalt of the canyon walls. The surrounding terrain is vast and unpopulated, unbroken grassy slopes and black soil climbing toward volcanic ridges. It is an open and unnerving landscape, frightful and strangely beautiful. I have never been anyplace where I was so conscious of living on a molten rock hurling through space.

Given the stark contours of Þingvellir, it is no surprise that when Iceland's go?ar, or ancient tribal chiefs, needed to forge peace they assembled on this site. In 930 a.d. Þingvellir became home to the Alþingi, often considered the world's first parliament. For eight centuries this small gorge housed Iceland's legislature and judiciary. Here criminals were sentenced, Christianity adopted and independence movements launched. Few churches or democracies in the world can trace their beginnings to such fierce scenes of geologic power.

Strange as it may seem, I often recalled that visit to Iceland as I watched the Ken Olsen Science Center emerge out of the frozen ground on the edge of the quad. This fall, as the corridors fill with faculty, students and guests, we will have new opportunities to think about the alliance of faith, science and democracy in our own culture.

It's an uneasy bond. The United States can reasonably claim to be the most scientifically advanced and one of the most pervasively Christian nations, but fault lines between the lab and the sanctuary continue to widen. Today the academy often dismisses faith as an obstacle to knowledge, even as many Christians still succumb to reactionary rants about science. But increasingly believers cannot speak of shalom--the Hebraic idea of human flourishing or right order--without considering the extraordinary possibilities and hazards of modern scientific inquiry.

If science and faith are still often at odds, there are also concerns about the rapport between science and democracy. At risk is the health of the American "social contract with science"--the will of the republic to invest in research and grant the investigator broad freedom, confident that the scholarly community will insist on professional rigor, ethical protocols and intellectual generosity. The social contract presumes that the nation's investment in discovery belongs to the public and the worldwide scholarly community. Yet with the rise of proprietary science, as well as some fearful prospects for reengineering the species, that presumption is increasingly fragile.

As the day for the Olsen Center's opening nears, I have tried to reflect on how Gordon College might help do its part to invigorate this social contract. With our new building, all of us--whether we map genomes or (like me) merely struggle to decipher spreadsheets--should consider how a community of faith could contribute to a more robust future for the relationship between science and democracy. Here, as a starting place, are five themes for that task.

1. Science Graduates

First, a simple claim: Gordon can enrich democratic life by graduating scientists. More of them.

Two years ago the National Science Board (NSB) once again raised alarms about the failure of the United States to prepare enough scientists for the future. Actually, the percentage of students at American colleges and universities pursuing undergraduate science degrees has remained relatively stable over the past 20 years. In 2006 roughly 12 percent of collegians in the U.S. enrolled in nonengineering science majors--the physical, life, environmental, mathematics and computer sciences--virtually the same as in 1980. On this score, Gordon mirrored the national trend: 12.4 percent of our students in 2006 belonged to the Natural Science Division, only a slight drop from 13.4 percent in 1999. Yet this steady state has not kept pace with the recent 4-to-5 percent annual increases in new science and engineering jobs. And the shrillest warning from the NSB is that the science labor force is rapidly aging as the baby boomers educated during the Sputnik and the Apollo era close in on retirement. More than half of American scientists with doctorates are now older than 50.

Over the next decade we can certainly envision science majors rising to at least a fifth of our student body. That is, of course, a response to the market: few sectors of the labor market have as little unemployment as science. The revival of our 3-2 physics and engineering program, for instance, should help students blend a Christian liberal arts degree with entry to the engineering fields, now vastly underfed by American colleges. But, above all, it can be a moral and a global response. For a new generation of our alums to thrive as advocates for democratic reforms and international justice--and to partner with indigenous churches and agencies--it will increasingly need to address critical questions on energy, public health, environmental care, and bioethics.

2. Science Educators
The most painful shortages in the sciences may not be in the labs but in elementary and secondary classrooms. Each year between 17 percent and 28 percent of science teachers in American public schools do not have sufficient science credentials to teach their subjects, especially in the least and the most densely populated areas. When Greg Groover, Gordon trustee and pastor of the Historic Charles Street A.M.E. Church, recently joined the Boston School Board, he noted that disparities between our urban, rural and suburban schools may be the "civil rights" issue of our time.

How can Gordon make a difference? Certainly more science majors could produce more science educators, some with an interest in urban and rural communities. And, with an innovative spirit in the graduate program in education, Gordon can tailor the curriculum of our master's degree cohorts for the needs of specific school districts. Collaborating with districts, in Lynn and elsewhere, on education degrees that enrich science programs will equip local educators as they address gaps in science literacy.

We can also make the Ken Olsen Science Center a beacon for precollege students, especially those coming from less prosperous communities. Bringing urban young people into the Olsen Center for stimulating programs may help instill confidence about pursuing higher education in the sciences. We can design more prebaccalaureate service programs, like Bryan Auday's neuroscience adventure "Igniting the Mind." The Olsen Center, with its labs and display spaces, can host school science fairs. At present there is excitement among some younger Gordon faculty about a natural history museum in the Center, and I can envision Gordon granting awards to regional science students or allowing some local science classes to help curate displays.

3. Philanthropy and Privatization
The Christian community can also nourish the social contact through its heritage of philanthropy and service. Although the U.S. government invests less of its gross national product in humanitarian science than most other industrialized nations do, the American people continue to be generous with time and resources. Christian principles, as well as philanthropic and missionary networks, can be resources to scholars concerned about threats to social justice kindled by the privatization of knowledge. With shrinking state funding and higher costs, research depends more on private investors, and the results are increasingly seen more as marketable products for the entrepreneur rather than as the common possessions of citizens. Admittedly, there are benefits to privatization: some accelerated rates of innovation, reduced taxes, and lower overhead costs to support entrenched bureaucracies. But there are also liabilities. Privatization can obstruct the dissemination of key discoveries to those in need; research can be disproportionately focused on the global marketing of biotechnology products to the world's wealthiest consumers. Some measure of scholarly independence--and, on too many occasions, truth-telling--can be lost when the scholar works primarily in service of a sponsor's advantage.

At present, many of the widest gaps between supply and demand appear in the humanitarian science fields: infectious diseases and hunger relief, water control and contamination, nursing and gerontology. The Peace Corps, like other relief organizations, recently noted that their most critical need is not for volunteers but rather for scientists with cross-cultural experience and knowledge of languages, as well as reasoning, writing and listening abilities. That sounds like an opportunity for Gordon: to partner with organizations especially eager for graduates with liberal arts skills, moral alertness, and a heart for service.

4. Green Neighbors
Recently several Gordon initiatives, quite admirably, have urged us to "go green"--among them, Irv Levy's and Dwight Tshudy's push for green chemistry; Leo Cleary's biodiesel project; Dorothy Boorse's environmental science courses; and Mark Stowell's "Restore Creation" program. In an era of globalization, we are becoming more alert to how poor stewardship harms the welfare of people worldwide. Now questions about justice often focus on environmental concerns. Links between global democratization and environmental health are actually mixed: while autocratic regimes are usually major polluters, democratization itself has led at times to more soil erosion, carbon emissions and deforestation.

A vigorous social contract asks us to understand the threats to the global environment, including threats in our own democratic neighborhoods. When I came to Gordon in 1996, I was drawn to the beauty of the locale--the woodlands, orchards, marshlands and coastal estuaries. What I did not know was that Essex County was one of the most polluted regions of the nation. According to the Environmental Protection Agency scorecard, Essex was the third most polluted county in Massachusetts in 2002 and among the worst 10 percent of the nation. Several problems stemmed from industrial discharge--the Salem smoke towers were major culprits--as well as diesel soot from trucks and power plants. Fortunately there has been considerable progress in the last several years: industrial toxic releases in the county are now one-fourth of what they were in 1988. But traffic has risen, wetlands are threatened, and carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from highway traffic still exceed National Ambient Air Quality Standards nearly half the days of the year.

The Olsen Center will be one of the premier science facilities on the North Shore, and can be a stimulus for environmental discipline and discovery. Can we champion everyday habits and behaviors that model stewardship? Can research by students and faculty help assess local water, air and land conditions and recommend strategies for use and conservation? What if the Olsen Center became seen as the one of the region's vital think tanks for environmental care?

5. Dignity and Dialogue
Questions about democracy are vital to all disciplines, but the politics of biotechnology have a fierce relevance in our region. Greater Boston now boasts more than 300 biotech firms. Today Ralph Waldo Emerson's "American Scholar" would examine cells under a microscope.

The biotechnology debates are acid tests for democracy. At stake is human dignity--how we sustain and elongate life, and who sets the limits for reengineering the species. Yet, as The Boston Globe's Charles Pierce observes, discussions about bioethics can be "so removed from the science of biotechnology that it becomes clear that a great deal of the future debate on the issues of biotechnology might well be composed of scientists and moral philosophers talking past each other, with politicians in the middle trying to mediate the discussion."

Gordon College--especially with great new public spaces in the Olsen Center--can be a vital catalyst of this conversation. That is one hope for the new Forum on Faith and Science that physicist and science writer Karl Giberson will be overseeing at Gordon in coming years. Recently Alan Leshner, the executive publisher of Science, underscored the importance of discussions between scientists and "church and synagogue groups" for democratic policy. He emphasized that the rift between science and faith comes as much from "evangelical atheists among our science colleagues" who underestimate the education of religious people. For instance, the debate concerning "somatic-cell nuclear transfer," he claimed, is a clash over values, about "when life begins, and its sanctity," rather than a case of scientific naiveté.

What Gordon offers is a network of relationships and good will among people of faith, and a commitment to respectful dialogue, a central theme of the College's Center for Christian Studies. Our challenge is to forge greater understanding among those who disagree, but at the same time to understand more fully how the rich heritage of Christian bioethical philosophy and thought can contribute to the public discourse. Most theories of democracy warn of the dangers of unbridled freedom and the loss of a common sense of humanity. Francis Fukayama, for instance, appeals to secular governments to realize that free and unregulated experimentation can mean that "human essence will be altered over time"--that we will see "transgenetic species" and move into a "posthuman future."

How does a pluralistic culture navigate concerns about biotechnological invention? It cannot simply purge the conversation of moral or metaphysical notions of human meaning. As former Cambridge physicist John Polkinghorne contends, "Science has achieved its very great success in its own domain at the cost of the modesty of its ambitions. We have every reason to believe that there are many questions to ask both meaningful and necessary that cannot be framed according to the narrow protocols of science." There are indeed principles in Christian bioethical thought--prudence and subsidiarity, for instance--that have long been used to weigh medical decisions; today, more Christian bioethicists, such as Lisa Cahill, are also challenging medical organizations to view global access to health care in moral terms. As Harvard astrophysicist Owen Gingerich notes, in many scientific controversies--such as species extension and biotechnological risk--"Even persons who do not identify with Christianity are being morally bankrolled by the conscience of the Christian tradition." Our task is to know and enrich that tradition more fully.

Things Wondrous and Fearful
Our visit to Þingvellir came just an hour or so after we arrived in the Arctic dawn at Keflavik Airport, on the bleak fringe of lava that comprises the Rekyannes Peninsula. A quick stop for a rental car and we were off toward the hills east of Reykjavik. Drenched by the midnight rains, the streets of the capital were nearly empty, and the valleys beyond seemed occupied only by the wind. It was still too early for the tour buses when we pulled up to the panoramic view of the Þingvellir crevasse and began the short trek into the ravine. At that moment we seemed to have come to a lonely place--a curiosity on an island that was still more mythic than renowned.

But today, more than ever, the smallest places of the world open windows on the great global issues. No one visits Reykjavik anymore without being reminded that Reagan and Gorbachev once tried to end the Cold War there. Just within the last decade, the massive Vatnajükull glacier in the south--which covers one-tenth of the island--has retreated nearly two miles, making Iceland a focal point in the debates about climate change. And none of those early tribal assemblies in Iceland understood that the razor-like slice in the Þingvellir terrain is actually part of an extraordinary subterranean fracture: the valley is the most visible site above sea level in the long rift that separates the continental plates of Europe and Africa from those of the Western Hemisphere. It is yet another reminder that even in our quiet places we can be, quite unknowingly, right in the midst of great global contours. What seems like a small, even remote place may be on the trail of things wondrous and fearful--immensely significant, but often sheltered from public view. European parliamentary democracy took root in an Icelandic valley; who knows the reverberations that will emanate from the discovery and discourse within the new Center on our own quad?

For a few minutes on that brisk Iceland morning, we noted the beauty of the small things: the colors of lichen, the blue mosses in the crags, the glacial streams, and the steam rising out of the dark rocks. Only later did we realize that our simple morning walk had taken us into a chasm that, quite literally, divides the world.

Mark L. Sargent, Ph.D., has been the provost of Gordon College since 1996.